Maybe this’ll shock you or maybe it will make perfect sense as you read this, but I never went through a confirmation program. My small Methodist church in Steele, North Dakota, did not have that as one of our traditions or rituals. Instead, we did Sunday school up until we were about 8th graders, and then Wednesday night youth group until we graduated. I remember my youth group leaders sort of just facilitating hangouts for us on those evenings. We would sit around the tables in the fellowship hall with some snacks, and just talk about our days. Maybe we would read a Bible verse and discuss. Maybe we would watch some sort of video having to do with the week’s scriptures. Mostly though, it was just time together to connect and not feel like there was some agenda or list of things we had to accomplish.
Of course, youth group would end at about 8:30pm and then we would spend probably another hour in the parking lot by our cars continuing to talk before driving off for the evening. If you ask me about my faith journey, I will often note some of the negatives of my experience growing up in that congregation, but I will always speak glowingly of my youth group experience and the caring adults who volunteered their time and energy to give us kids what we needed more than anything: community.
So, after reading that, I hope you will understand when I say that I don’t actually get the whole deal with confirmation. Yes, I run a confirmation program at my church, Sharon Lutheran in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Yes, I am studying at Luther Seminary and working towards ordination in the ELCA Eastern North Dakota Synod. Ever since I started down this path though, I am perplexed a little by this whole process that we ask our young people and their families to embark on starting in 6th grade and all the way until confirmation day when they are (in my congregation) in 11th grade. Why am I trying to teach the doctrines and theology of the church to young people whose minds are not in a place where they can even process or understand half of it?
I’ve been really pondering this lately, and this past Ash Wednesday the contradiction became about as clear as it ever has. I have a similar youth group structure to what I grew up with. It’s a weekly hangout where we talk about whatever is on the kid’s minds. During Lent however, I introduce candle time. We light a candle, turn out the lights, turn on our strings of Christmas lights, and we intentionally have about 10 minutes of quiet contemplation around a question of the week. This week one of my kids just blurted out, “Why do we have to talk about God stuff?!”, before I could even introduce a topic. “Ooooh! Let’s go with that!” I said excitedly. So I point blank asked my youth group, “Do you even believe in God?” Blank stares. Uh oh, I put them on the spot. And then it started:
“I don’t really know if I do.”
“I think God is there when things are going okay, but I really don’t see how God exists when things are just so bad.”
“I think God created everything and just stays hands off, letting whatever happens happen to us.”
“I’m not really sure if I can even define what God is, maybe there are even multiple Gods in control of different things.”
“I’m an atheist, but I do think something created all of this.”
Ten minutes turned into about 45. It just kept going. Kids who never speak up all of a sudden had a lot to say. Kids who talk all the time actually were quietly thinking before they spoke. God was at work in my youth group right then and there, and here’s what I heard. Young people are not in a space where they have settled on anything. They are still forming their idea of God, their faith, and their relationship with the church, and it won’t be formed for quite some time. I think we would all do well to remember that many of us were in the same boat when we were their age.
So, if young people have not settled on what their idea of God even is, why are we putting them through a program where in the end they will stand in front of the church and profess a faith and relationship that they can’t even define, despite all the time and effort we put in to educate them?
When they had finished with their discussion, I brought the lights back up, and acknowledged all of them. None of them had said anything wrong, I emphasized, and I was so thankful for the way they wrestled with the question. I then asked a quick follow up because of something I’ve come to understand in my four years here at Sharon Lutheran, “Is this room right here with us together every week ‘church’?” The answer was an overwhelming yes. The worship service is not their church. The community outside this room is not their church. They have built their own church in a small room with memes stuck to the walls and a mini fridge full of Mountain Dew. This is their community, and this is their support. These kids confirm their faith every week they show up and share their joys, their hurts and their lives. Their faith is in each other, and our time and space together, and even if they can’t define it right now, God is present in every interaction that happens in their “church.”
Do we give up on confirmation programs then? No, I don’t think so, but maybe we need to rethink the process and rethink what our congregations—and ourselves, for that matter—measure as success. Our job is not to churn out believers who have unquestioning faith and an encyclopedic knowledge of the small catechism. It is not to drag kids across the line so that their families can have their “church graduation.”
Our job is to plant a seed. To nurture it. We do that by building relationships, not by memorization, or homework, or lectures. We let the young people have their space and let them know they are loved. We need to be okay with them not understanding, because who really does?
Greater people than myself have tried to crack this problem, but I guess I am asking, “Is it even a problem?” This is the evolution of church, and we are watching it happen before our eyes. People like me, whose church background is shaky at best, are finding their way into ministry because God is calling the people who don’t know, to be present with other people who don’t know. Maybe our conversation needs to change because our affirmation of baptism happens daily, not on some designated date on the church calendar.
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” – 1 Corinthians 3:6-7